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Early cinema “ransacked” theatre repertoire

20 May 2009

A University of Manchester historian has charted the little known but enormous contribution of theatre to the film industry in the culmination of a 32-year project.

Early movie posters
Early movie posters

Professor David Mayer, from the University’s School of Arts Histories and Cultures says when the industry was in its infancy, movie makers ransacked the theatre repertoire for the subject matter of their films.

In a new book, Professor Mayer describes how one the most influential early filmmakers – DW Griffith – used theatre to inspire his most famous work - the first ever feature film ‘Birth of a Nation’.

Among the hundreds of examples he found is the first ever special effects film by J. Searle Dawley called ‘Rescued from an Eagles Nest’. The subject matter was identical to a play by Con T Murphy called ‘The Ivy Leaf’.

Professor Mayer said: “Early filmmakers often came from immigrant communities looking for work or were inventors who used the genre of film to showcase their new technology.

“They weren’t particularly interested in original content so it’s not that surprising they would pilfer ideas from the theatre – a much more respectable genre.

“Indeed, when film making began, theatre looked down on the industry as inferior and there was a lot of snobbery.

“People who went into film sometimes used a false name - or were often not credited at all.

”But I feel it’s high time that the roots of film was duly acknowledged: there is no such thing as pre-cinema.”

Griffith appeared in, directed or wrote the screen plays for 570 silent films and talkies from 1908 to the 1930s.

His is acknowledged by film buffs as one of the most important films makers of all time.

Professor Mayer added: “Griffith’s contribution to film is remarkable: he pioneered the use of the close up and different types of camera technology and filming techniques.

“What is remarkable about Griffith was that he too was inspired by the theatre.

“His film for example “The birth of a nation” was based on Thomas Dickson’s ‘the Clansman’.

“Though undeniably racist, the film is one of the most influential ever made. It’s roots though, were in the theatre.”

Professor Mayer, has been recovering early films whose inspiration came from the theatre since the 1970s.

Professor Mayer’s Victorian and Edwardian Film project began 32 years ago while researching film actives at the Washington Library of Congress.

Notes for editors

David Mayer is Emeritus Professor of Drama at The University of Manchester.

His book Stagestruck filmmakers: DW Griffiths and the American Theatre is published by University of Iowa Press.

Image of Griffith film poster is available

Professor Mayer is available for interview

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Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567